Fear and DNA

Playing God: Genetic Engineering and the Manipulation of Life

by June Goodfield
Random House, 218 pp., $8.95

Biohazard

by Michael Rogers
Knopf, 210 pp., $8.95

The Ultimate Experiment: Man-made Evolution

by Nicholas Wade
Walker and Company, 162 pp., $8.95

It is the great glory as it is also the great threat of science that everything which is in principle possible can be done if the intention to do it is sufficiently resolute. Scientists may exult in the glory, but in the middle of the twentieth century the reaction of ordinary people is more often to cower at the threat.

Everybody will doubtless be dismayed to learn that it is possible in principle—and technically not even very difficult—to transform human beings into two sub-peoples: the one moiety brainy and comparatively beautiful—like the Eloi of H.G. Wells’s famous journey into far future time—and the other moiety comparatively stupid but fitted by their docility and physical strength to do the dirty work and serve the others: Wells’s Morlocks or Wagner’s Nibelungen.

Why does not the mere possibility of this ultimate political prostration of mankind fill us with dismay? The reason is that the program I have just envisaged could have been embarked upon at any time in the past thousand years, merely by applying the most powerful of all forms of biological engineering—Darwinian selection—to a population—mankind—known by its open breeding system, lack of specialization, and rich resources of inborn diversity to be perfectly well able to respond to the empirical arts of the stockbreeder. The answer, in the form of a counter question, does something to explain why most biologists and laymen look rather coolly upon such attempts to curdie our blood: if these enormities have not been perpetrated or even seriously attempted hitherto by the comparatively straightforward and empirically well understood methods available for their execution, why should we now begin to fear that enormities as great or even greater will be executed by the much more costly and technically more difficult procedures of genetic engineering—by procedures which are conceptually well understood, to be sure, but are not yet anywhere near the level of proficiency in actual execution which the stockbreeder can command?

Nothing since the early days of atomic weaponry has caused so much dismay as the real or imagined threats associated with the development of genetical engineering and recombinant DNA research, the subjects of the books and papers under review.

At the root of all genetical engineering lies that which I described without qualification as the greatest scientific discovery of the twentieth century: that the chemical makeup of the compound deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)—and in particular the order in which the four different nucleotides out of which it is assembled lie along the backbone of the molecule—encodes genetic information and is the material vehicle of the instructions by which one generation of organisms governs the development of the next. If the DNA message is altered, the effects of doing so are, in their context and of their kind, as far-reaching as the effects would be of altering the wording of congressional or parliamentary legislation or the wording of telegrams conveying diplomatic exchanges between nations. It …

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Letters

Worried Scientists April 6, 1978